I stare down at the screaming, pink creature in my arms, and I panic.
Panic is a maelstrom. It churns to life in your brain like a whirlpool, gaining speed as it funnels down into the rest of the body. Round and round it goes, causing your heart to race. Round and round twisting, knotting and sickening the stomach. Round and round, it hits your knees, weakening them before creating a cesspool in your toes. You curl up your toes, take a few deep breaths, and grab onto the life-preserving ring of sanity before the panic can suck you in.
These are my first ten seconds of being a mother.
I hand her back to her father. “We have to hire a nanny.”
I fan myself with a copy of Vogue, until it becomes too heavy, then I let my wrist go limp, dropping it to the floor.
“Can I have my Pellegrino?” I wiggle my fingers toward my bottled water, which is out of my reach, and lean my head back against the flat, hospital-issued pillow. These are the facts: a human being just fell out of my body after I grew it there for nine months. The parasitical similarities are enough to cause me to grab a doctor by his lapels and demand he tie my tubes into a pretty bow. My stomach — which I have already examined — looks like a deflated, skin-toned balloon. I am tired and sore. I want to go home. When my water doesn’t come, I crack open an eye. Aren’t people supposed to be running circles around me after what I just did?
Baby and father are standing in front of the window, framed by the dim afternoon light like a cheesy hospital advertisement. All they need is a pithy hospital catch phrase to caption the moment: Start your family with our family.
I make the effort to study them. He is cradling her in his arms, his head bent so low their noses are almost touching. It should be a tender moment, but he is gazing at her with so much love, I feel jealousy do a little squeeze-squeeze on my heart. Jealousy has a hell of a strong hand. I squirm underneath its touch, uncomfortable for letting it in.
Why couldn’t it have been a boy? It … my child. Fresh disappointment makes me press my face against the pillow, blocking out the scene in front of me. Two hours earlier, the doctor had said the word girl and tossed her blue, slime-covered body onto my chest. I hadn’t known what to do. My husband was watching me, so I reached a hand up to touch her; all the while, the word girl was crushing down on my chest like a thousand ton elephant.
I am going to have to share my husband with another woman … again.
“What are we going to name her?” He doesn’t even look at me when he speaks. I feel I’ve earned a little eye contact. Mon Pied! Already I was an afterthought.
I hadn’t chosen a girl’s name. I had been so sure it was a boy. Charles Austin — after my father.
“I don’t know. Any suggestions?” I smooth out my bed sheets, study my fingernails. A name is a name, right? I don’t even go by the one my parents gave me.
He looks at her for a long time, his hand cupping her head. She has stopped thrashing her fists around and is still and content in his arms. I know the feeling.
“Estella.” The name rolls off his tongue like he’s been waiting to say it his whole life.
My head jerks up. I was expecting something less … ancient. I scrunch up my nose.
“That sounds like an old lady’s name.”
“It’s from a book.”
Caleb and his books.
“Which one?” I don’t read … unless you count magazines, but chances are if it was made into a movie, I probably saw it.
I narrow my eyes and get that sinking feeling in my stomach. It has something to do with her. I know it.
I do not verbalize these thoughts. I am too clever to call attention to my insecurities, so I casually shrug and smile in his direction.
“Any specific reason?” I ask sweetly.
For a minute I think I see something pass across his face, a shade coming down over his eyes like he’s seeing a movie play out on his eyeballs. I swallow hard. I know that face.
The movie ends, and he comes back to me. “I’ve always liked that name. She looks like an Estella.”
A catch in his voice.
She looks like a bald, old man to me, but I nod. I am incapable of saying no to my husband, so it looks like the kid just got screwed.
When he leaves for home to take a shower, I pull my phone from underneath my pillow and Google ‘Estella’ from Great Expectations.
One website calls her an enchanting beauty, says she has a cold-hearted personality and a superiority complex. Another says she was the physical representation of everything Pip wanted and could not have. I put the phone away and peer into the bassinet beside me. Caleb does everything with purpose. I wonder how long he’s wanted a girl. I wonder if the nine months I planned on having a son, Caleb was planning on having a daughter.
I do not feel anything — none of the gushing, maternal things my friends relayed to me about their own children. They had used words like: unconditional, all encompassing, love of my life. I had smiled and nodded, storing the words away for reference when I had my own child. And, now here I am, emotionless. Those words mean nothing to me. Would I have felt differently if she were a boy? The baby starts to wail, and I jab at the nurse’s call button.
“Need some help?” a mid-fifties nurse wearing Care Bear scrubs walks briskly into the room. I eye her gappy smile and nod.
“Can you take her to the nursery? I need to get some sleep.”
Estella is wheeled out of my room, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
I am not going to be good at this. What was I thinking? I breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth like I do in Yoga.
I want a cigarette. I want a cigarette. I want to kill the woman my husband loves. This is all her fault. I got pregnant to secure the man that I had already married. A woman shouldn’t have to do that. She should feel safe in her marriage. That’s why you got married — to feel safe from all the men who were trying to siphon your soul. I’d yielded my soul to Caleb willingly. Offered it up like a sacrificial lamb. Now, I was not only going to have to compete with the memory of another woman, but a shriveled up baby. He was already staring into her eyes like he could see the Grand Canyon tucked away in her irises.
I sigh and curl into a ball, tucking my knees under my chin and gripping my ankles.
I have done a number of things to keep this man. I have lied and cheated. I have been sexy and meek, fierce and vulnerable. I have been everything but myself.